Sex toys guilty pleasures

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

On a fine day 10 years from now, this writer wonders what Indian couples (both same-sex and straight) would do, if they found a well-dressed IB agent nestled between them while they embraced. Such interesting times of state interference are not far away since the debate around sex toys fell open after the Supreme Court lawyer Suhaas R Joshi’s petition against online sale of sex toys by Snapdeal, an online shopping site.

“I am neither against sex toys nor am I a messiah for the fabric called Indian morality. Enough reports on my petition have been written along these lines without highlighting the issues that I threw light upon,” an agitated Joshi tells TEHELKA. Inadvertently, the lawyer had stepped on a debate around ‘kinky and unnatural’ sex in India, which also touches upon issues such as law, health, consumer protection and taboo.

Any discussion that delves into the conjunction of sex and the Indian legal system leads us back to our colonial past. Post 1858, when the British Crown took over East India Company, the mass creation of a series of codes for all aspects of law, be it commercial, criminal or procedural, was undertaken. The obscenity laws under Sections 292 and 292A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), for example, were a byproduct of this tryst with Victorian morality. Defining obscenity as anything (book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, representation, figure or object) that “is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect, or (where it comprises two or more distinct items) the effects of any one of its items, is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it,” the Indian legal apparatus has kept inordinate amount of censorship power within itself. Understanding the scope and power of legal language, Joshi attempts to use law as a tool to question the online Indian market of sex toys. “My argument begins with addressing a plethora of players (online selling sites) who have managed to circumvent the State and occupy grey areas of the law. Citing immunity through the IT (Information Technology) Act, these websites negotiate their products effortlessly with no concern for the law. First of all, if you consider Sections 292 and 292A, an advertisement proclaiming to provide anal pleasure (which I saw on the site) is a violation of law as it is an open suggestion. Secondly, under Section 377, any sexual act deemed to be against the law of nature is a criminal act. So then, can anal pleasure, mentioned in the product description of a lubricant, be seen as ‘legal’ when it clearly falls under the ambit of unnatural act of sex?” asks Joshi.

While Joshi’s attempts are focussed on looking at the flouting of legal norms by online shopping giants, his call for a possible check on the sale of sex toys might only go in the direction of a ban from the central government. “It is contradictory to find someone use Section 377 to restrict the sale of sex toys. He might not be in favour of criminalising homosexuality but if he uses the ambit of that law to strengthen his case, it would only serve to put us closer to censorship,” says Gourab Ghosh, a gay activist and founding member of Dhanak, a queer collective. “At the end of it, any same-sex couple or straight couple cannot walk into a store and ask for a sex toy of their choice because we have not reached such a stage of open conversation around sexual preferences. Therefore, asking for a vibrator online does cut through that ground of shame and taboo,” continues Ghosh.

In a nation like India, shame is a powerful business commodity. Therefore, shaping anything outside ‘missionary style sex’ as a ‘dirty bedroom secret’ has successfully opened markets of opportunity for lucrative agents. For example, according to an employee from Flipkart who does not wish to be named, “Sexual wellness, a category under health, is doing exceptionally well in terms of sales and the number of hits from customers.” Such terminology that brackets sex toys under the category of sexual wellness and places it under the larger terminology of health has been a subject of debate due to Joshi’s petition. “It is a deliberate way of mischief. Product descriptions such as this lets them plan their market and circumvent law,” says Joshi.

Though the language of shrouding sex toys under the garb of ‘sexual wellness and health’ might be a business manoeuvre, in truth, sexual health is as important an aspect as physical health. In India, however, sexual health only rests on notions such as prevention of the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). “If you look at our health policy, we believe in two aspects: Disease control and population control. These are the discussions that come under the purview of public health. Anything outside of this ambit is deemed private,” says Jisha CJ, a PhD scholar in social medicine. That is, anything related to the wholesome sexual health of an individual including the idea of providing sexual pleasure is vestigial.

However, some earlier references in western medical texts speak of a different correlation between health and sexual pleasure. For instance, providing sexual pleasure (read orgasm) to the woman was seen as an important medical remedy to treating hysteria. In a medical compendium titled Observationem et Curationem Medicinalium ac Chirurgicarum Opera Omnia published in 1653, the author, Alemarianus Petrus Forestus, directs a physician in the following way: “When these symptoms indicate, we think it necessary to ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus or [something similar]. This stimulation with the finger is recommended most especially for widows, those who live chaste lives[;] it is less often recommended for very young women [or] married women, for whom it is a better remedy to engage in intercourse with their spouses.” Thus, vibrators, an instrument most often designed to stimulate erogenous zones such as the clitoris and vagina of a woman, were designed primarily as an electro mechanical medical instrument that treated hysteria. A similar reference to sex toys and its possible use in aiding sexual health can also be found on this side of the town as well. “For instance, according to Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra, a man who is unable to satisfy his partner must attempt to fulfill their needs through masturbation, oral sex or artificial penis (which is a reference to dildos or dildo shaped vibrators or sex toys),” Dr Prakash Kothari, one of the foremost sexologists in India, tells TEHELKA.

“Sexual health is an ignored concern of our times. Ideally, a healthy sex life requires foreplay from both partners. Because we see it as something akin to exercise, a sex toy (dildo or vibrator) if used properly allows a man or a woman to take control of their sexual needs. Additionally, it can even function as a tool for reinforcing the pleasure for same-sex and straight couples,” adds Kothari. Population figures in India suggest that there are at least 29 births per minute. Yet, our country has only seen a single department of sexual medicine so far.

“I set up the first and only medical department pertaining to sexual medicine. And, I have a record of looking into at least 55,000 cases (including same-sex couples) so far. To date, even premier institutions such as the New Delhi-based AIIMS haven’t set up departments addressing sexual concerns,” says Kothari. In such a scenario, aspects pertaining to transmission of STDs through sex toys or possibilities of treating an injury inflicted by sex toys has also been ignored. In an article published by the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, Emily Stabile outlines a significant number of health risks around the sex toy industry. “Sex toys contain design or labelling flaws that can lead to injuries. For example, in order to be safe for anal penetration, sex toys must have a flared end that is sufficiently wide enough so that the toy does not get sucked into the body and lost, potentially causing serious injury. With 78.1 percent of injuries occurring in the anorectal region, the study suggested that this is the most common kind of sex toy-related injury. Similarly, toys with sharp edges can cause cuts and tears. Vibrators or other toys with electrical elements can expose the user to unsafe wiring and shocks. Vibrations themselves can cause chronic numbness and pain over time. In addition to design flaws and lack of proper warnings, many sex toys contain chemicals that can damage consumers’ health. Many vibrators and other sex toys made of so-called “jelly”-type plastic contain phthalates, a group of chemicals used to increase flexibility in plastic products. Phthalates can enter the body orally, through food or water, through inhalation or through absorption by the skin, including the mucous membranes where sex toys generally contact the skin,” notes Stabile.

Last week, the Centre imposed a ban on the Hollywood movie Fifty Shades of Grey due to the explicit nature of its sexual content. Though the ban might have kept it away from the big screens in India, the movie has found its way into the laptop screens of the Indian consumer. The depiction of a rich collection of BDSM tools along with some interesting sex toys has created a buzz around experimentation. The need of the hour is to have an open engagement around the growing sex toy industry and to demystify some of the taboos surrounding the sexual needs of the straight and the LGBTQ community in India.

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